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Lesson 4: The Man Who Was Always Singing (Psalm 18 [2 Samuel 22])

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Do you sing? I don’t mean, “Do you sing well enough to join a choir?” I mean, “Do you find your joy in the Lord welling up so much that it spills over into singing?” When you’re alone and when you come together with God’s people, do you find yourself wanting to burst forth in heartfelt praise to God for who He is and what He’s done for you? If you don’t sing to the Lord, your prayer life is deficient. Singing praises to God is a vital part of prayer.

David, the man after God’s heart, sang many of his prayers to the Lord. David composed at least half of the psalms, which, we need to remember, were to be sung, not just read. He was always singing, even when he was in a cave, hiding to save his life (Ps. 57). He has much to teach us about prayer and, especially, about the aspect of praise in prayer.

Becoming a person of praise may not be at the top of your priority list—you’ve got practical problems to solve—but it ought to be! As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” or, as John Piper rephrases it, “to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” One of the main ways we glorify God is through praise. The brief glimpses Scripture gives us into heaven indicate that a major part of eternity will be filled with praising God. To the extent that that activity strikes us as a bit boring, we lack understanding of the infinite perfections of God and of the tremendous joy of praising Him. We all need to become people of praise.

I’m convinced that one of the main reasons God called David a man after God’s own heart was that David was a man of praise. We could spend many messages exploring this theme, but I’m going to limit myself to one message from David’s Psalm 18. I could preach a series of messages on this psalm alone, so my treatment will be a bit sketchy. But I want to show three things from this psalm about becoming people of praise:

To be people of praise, we must come to the end of ourselves, flee to God as our refuge, and express it to Him in song.

These three elements are present in many of the psalms. The psalmist was under attack or in a difficult circumstance. In his distress he called out to the Lord who delivered him, leading to his outburst of praise in song.

There is both good news and bad news in this observation. The good news is that the psalms are intensely life-related. Every emotion and up-and-down of life is reflected in the psalms, so that we can relate easily to them. John Calvin called the Psalms, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;” and added, “for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], Preface to Psalms, p. xxxvii). The bad news is that to become people of praise, we’ve got to enroll in God’s school of hard knocks. And, we must advance in that school until we come to the end of ourselves:

1. To be people of praise, we must come to the end of ourselves.

David wrote Psalm 18 and sang it to the Lord “in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul” (superscription). This probably means that David wrote it later in life, as he reflected back on God’s faithfulness in his many troubles. It is an important enough psalm that the Holy Spirit saw fit to include it twice in Scripture (with minor variations, it is in 2 Samuel 22).

To appreciate what David had been through, you need to recall his background. David was in his late teens when he was anointed as king. But he was 30 before he actually became king over the southern part of Israel and 37 before the whole kingdom was united under his rule. During those years, God was shaping His man through adversity, putting David in situation after situation where he despaired of life itself and had to learn to trust in God alone. For over a decade, the mercurial King Saul pursued David over the Judean wilderness, so that David said, “There is hardly a step between me and death” (1 Sam. 20:3). He lived in caves and moved constantly to avoid Saul’s relentless pursuits.

If you ever watched the old TV series, “The Fugitive,” you have some idea how David felt during those years. He could never let down, never relax; he always had to be on the alert. We talk about being under stress—how would you like to know every day and every night that an enemy with a whole army at his disposal was trying to kill you!

In Psalm 18, we don’t know whether David was writing about a specific incident, or just lumping together his many narrow escapes from death. In poetic language he describes (18:4-5) a man who is in turbulent water over his head. Weeds or vines are wrapping around him so that he cannot break free. In the terror of the moment, all he can think is, “I’m going to die!” He had come to the end of himself.

You may wonder, “Why would a good, loving God put a decent, clean-living young man like David in situation after situation where he despaired of life itself?” After all, David was a good kid. He obeyed his father. He was conscientious about taking care of his dad’s sheep. He didn’t get drunk or do drugs. He had more faith in God as a teenager than anybody in Saul’s army, so that he could kill Goliath. We’re not talking about an average kid. David was a choice young man. We may hesitate to say it, but we might think that for God to treat David as He did sounds a bit cruel!

But if we think that, we don’t understand God’s loving ways. “Whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom he receives.... He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb. 12:6, 10). The fact is, if God didn’t bring us to the end of ourselves, we would trust in ourselves, not in God. So He brings us into impossible situations where there is no human way out. The more impossible the situation, the greater will be our praise after He has delivered us.

The endemic human cancer that God is patiently, lovingly, cutting out of His people is pride. Since the fall, we all suffer from the sin of pride. Even those with so-called “low self-esteem,” who dump on themselves all the time, suffer from pride. At the root of pride is relying on ourselves rather than on God. Pride is looking within for our sufficiency rather than looking to Christ. It is thinking too highly of ourselves and too lowly of God. Pride thinks that God owes us something because of who we are or what we’ve done. In pride we think that our own righteousness commends us to God. Pride is putting ourselves above others, thinking that we’re better than they are. Everyone suffers from pride in one form or another.

This is crucial, because if we don’t grasp it, we don’t truly understand the gospel and we can’t present it clearly to those who are lost. In our day, the gospel pitch often goes, “Do you need help with your problems? Do you want a happier life? Invite Jesus into your life and He will give you what you need.” And so people who proudly think that they’re not too bad, who have no concept of the absolute holiness of God, ask Jesus to come into their lives and give them the little something extra they need. But they’ve never been humbled to see that unless God is merciful to them, they are under His just condemnation.

Note what David says (18:27): “For You save an afflicted people; but haughty eyes You abase.” God has to bring affliction into our lives to humble our pride. “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). When God humbles us so that we no longer trust in ourselves, then we call out to Him for salvation and He gets all the praise because we know that it was all due to His grace, not at all due to our merit.

Watchman Nee tells of a time when a group of Chinese Christian men were swimming in a river when one of the men got a cramp in his leg and began to drown. Nee motioned to another man, who was an expert swimmer, to go to the man’s aid. But to his surprise, the expert made no move. With panic, Nee and the others on shore began shouting, “Don’t you see the man is drowning? Do something!” But the good swimmer stood, calm and collected, without making a move. Meanwhile, the drowning man’s voice grew fainter and his efforts grew weaker. Nee thought to himself, “I hate this man! Think of letting a brother drown before his very eyes and not going to the rescue!”

But when the victim was actually sinking, with a few swift strokes the swimmer was at his side, and both were soon safely ashore. Later, when Nee got an opportunity, he aired his anger: “I have never seen any Christian who loved his life quite as much as you do. Think of the distress you would have saved that brother if you had considered yourself a little less and him a little more.”

But the swimmer, Nee found out, knew his business better than Nee did. He replied, “Had I gone earlier, he would have clutched me so fast that both of us would have gone under. A drowning man cannot be saved until he is utterly exhausted and ceases to make the slightest effort to save himself.” (The Normal Christian Life [Christian Literature Crusade], p. 117.)

It’s a lesson we must learn in coming to God: We cannot save ourselves. We must come to the end of ourselves and call out to God. Then, when He saves us, we will sing His praises. It’s also a lesson we must keep on learning throughout our Christian lives. We are so prone to trust in ourselves, but we cannot praise God while we trust ourselves. The lower we see ourselves, the more we exalt God. So, God lovingly keeps bringing us into situations where we are helpless, where we’re forced to trust in Him alone. That’s the first lesson of Psalm 18: That to be people of praise, we must come to the end of ourselves.

2. To be people of praise, we must flee to God as our all-sufficient refuge.

To become people of praise, we need to know, as David did, practically how to flee to God and trust Him as our refuge in the midst of intense troubles. Three things will help here:

A. We must know who God is.

We can’t trust in or flee for refuge to a God we don’t know. The many metaphors which David uses here show that he knew God in a practical and personal way: “My rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (18:2). A number of these metaphors recall particular incidents in David’s history: “Rock” (1 Sam. 23:25-28); “fortress” (1 Sam. 22:4; 24:22; 2 Sam. 5:7); “my God, my rock” (1 Sam. 24:2). In other words, “David’s praises celebrate actual deliverances which he and the men with him could authenticate” (Joyce Baldwin, 1 & 2 Samuel Tyndale O.T. Commentaries [IVP], p. 287). Note also the possessive pronoun, “my,” as applied to God (18:2 [7 x], 6, 21, 28, 29, 31 [“our”], 46). David didn’t just know about God; he knew God as his own God.

If we want to be able to flee to God as our all-sufficient refuge, we must know Him. We must know His attributes as revealed in His Word. In times of trial, Satan invariably tries to shake our confidence in the goodness of God. He comes to us and whispers, “If this God of yours is so good and so powerful, then why is He letting you go through this horrible trial?” But if we fix in our mind who our God is, we can flee to Him as our refuge.

B. We must know how God acts.

David goes on to describe God’s deliverance through a thunderstorm (18:7-15). This could be a poetic description to tell in general of God’s awesome power in rescuing His people. Or it could refer to an actual battle, not recorded in Scripture, where David was about to be defeated by a powerful enemy, but in response to his prayer, God sent a thunderstorm that sent the enemy army into confusion and gave David the victory.

But, David didn’t say, “Wow, I sure was lucky! A thunderstorm hit at just the right moment and I defeated my enemy!” No, David knew God’s way of delivering His people. Most often He uses natural means. Sometimes He violates the laws of nature and uses miracles. But David was very clear that it was God who rescued him, not his own strength or cleverness (18:16-19). In fact, this is the theme of verses 27-45 (note the frequency of “God,” “You” and “Your”), that even though David used the weapons of warfare, even though he was well-trained for battle, even though he fought the enemy, in all of this it was God who was at work. Without God’s working, David was helpless.

David could affirm that not only God, but also God’s way is perfect (18:30). God’s perfect way is to bring His people into difficult straits and humble them so that they are forced to rely on Him, so that He alone gets the praise. If we want to know God as our all-sufficient refuge so that we can flee to Him in our trials, so that we praise Him for His salvation, then we must know who He is and how He acts. Also,

C. We must know how to trust God experientially.

This wasn’t just theoretical theology for David. He knew practically how to lay hold of God in these desperate situations. There are three factors that lie behind David’s trust.

First was prayer. David prayed (18:3, 6). The repeated word, “cry,” shows the urgency and fervency of David’s prayers. Our prayers are more fervent when we sense how needy we really are.

Second was the Word. David affirms, “All His ordinances were before me, and I did not put away His statutes from me” (18:22). Through God’s Word we can know how God wants us to live. God’s Word gives us examples of others who trusted God in incredibly difficult trials so that we can imitate their faith. If we aren’t feeding on the Word when things are relatively calm, we won’t know how to trust God when calamity strikes.

Third was obedience. David not only knew God’s ordinances; he obeyed them. Some stumble over David’s assertion of his own righteousness (18:20-24). On the surface, it seems to run counter to what I said earlier about humility. It sounds as if David is boasting in himself and saying that God owed him deliverance because he was such a good guy. But that is to misinterpret these verses.

We need to understand that David isn’t comparing himself with God, in whose sight no one is righteous, but with his enemies, who do not follow God. Also, David is not denying his own sinfulness any more than God was denying Job’s sinfulness when He affirmed Job’s righteous life to Satan. David acknowledges repeatedly that any integrity or strength that he had came from God, not from himself (18:28-36). Rather, David is here affirming God’s justice in vindicating His people and judging the wicked. Also, David is saying what other Scriptures affirm, that we can have a legitimate assurance when we know that we have acted in obedience to God’s Word. Finally, we must look beyond David to David’s greater Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose innocence was absolute. God the Father rescued Jesus Christ from the cross because of His perfect obedience.

The point is, if we cry to God in prayer, if we know what His Word says about how we should live, and if we have a clear conscience that we have obeyed His Word, then we’ll be able to trust Him experientially in times of trial. And He will get the praise.

3. To be people of praise, we must express in song our gratitude to God for His salvation.

David expressed his gratitude to God by writing and singing this and many other psalms. But even if we can’t write songs or sing well, we can express our feelings by exuberantly making a joyful noise unto the Lord.

Don’t miss the intense emotions of this psalm (and all the psalms)! David begins with a burst of feeling: “I love You, O Lord, my strength.” He ends with another crescendo of praise: “The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock; and exalted be the God of my salvation” (18:46). Praise, if it is genuine, involves our emotions. If you don’t often feel love for the Lord for what He’s done for you, something is wrong with your spiritual life, just as if you never feel love for your mate, something is wrong with your marriage.

In A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards argues that “true religion, in great part, consists in holy affections” (= emotions). Of David and the Psalms, he says, “Those holy songs are nothing else but the expressions and breathings of devout and holy affections; such as an humble and fervent love to God, admiration of his glorious perfections and wonderful works, earnest desires, thirstings, and pantings of soul after him, delight and joy in God, [and] a sweet and melting gratitude for his great goodness (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:238, 240, italics his).

Some of you are thinking, “But, you don’t understand. I’m just not an emotional person.” Right! All I have to do is come by during the fourth quarter of close game when your team comes from behind in the closing seconds to win, and I’ll prove you wrong! Let’s be honest: our lack of emotion toward God just reflects the shallowness of our gratitude and love for Him.

Conclusion

Here are a few practical things that have helped me grow toward becoming a man of praise (I still have far to go!):

*Read the Psalms over and over. It’s no accident that it is the longest book in the Bible. God will use it to show you how to praise Him in the midst of the trials of life. Write some of the praise sections on cards and go over them frequently.

*Learn the great hymns of the faith. If you don’t know them, get a CD where they are sung and play it until you know the words and can sing along. I enjoy many of the modern praise choruses, but the hymns often have solid theology, and they link us to those who have gone before us. Luther stood against the powerful wickedness of the pope, in part, by singing hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Charles Wesley used hymns like his, “And Can It Be?” to teach theology to illiterate working people in 18th century England. Hudson Taylor was sustained through his grief after burying his beloved Maria by singing his favorite, “Jesus, I am resting, resting, in the joy of what Thou art, I am finding out the greatness, of Thy loving heart.”

*When you come to worship, block out distractions and focus on what you’re doing. Apathy in worship is sin! I find it helps to prepare my heart before the worship service. Then, I have to deliberately concentrate on the words as I sing them to the Lord. And, I sing them to Him! I don’t care what others think about me when I’m worshiping. They shouldn’t be thinking about me, anyway! I want to offer to God the heartfelt praise that He is due for being such a great and wonderful Savior!

Some of you are in the midst of difficult trials right now. If you will come to the end of yourself, flee to God as your all-sufficient refuge, and then express your gratitude to Him in song, you’re on your way to becoming a person of praise, a person after God’s own heart.

Discussion Questions

  1. Does everyone suffer from pride? What are some ways it manifests itself?
  2. Is there any place for self-confidence? Should we seek to develop self-confidence in our children, or is this opposed to humility?
  3. Someone says, “Trusting God is simplistic, impractical advice for dealing with serious problems.” Your response?
  4. Must reserved people become expressive in worship and praise? Are feelings toward God important?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Discipleship, Prayer, Spiritual Life, Worship (Personal)